Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Home should be where the jobs are

by Maya Brennan, Center for Housing Policy

Affordable housing programs can influence residents’ employment for better or for worse. When well-designed and executed, affordable housing programs provide opportunities, incentives, and supports to help low-income residents increase their earned income and make progress toward economic security. But when affordable housing is concentrated in high-poverty communities far from local job opportunities, residents can be trapped in neighborhoods that make finding and keeping a job both difficult and expensive.

A recent Texas Tribune article (also appearing in the New York Times) described the concentration of low-income housing developments in Texas' minority and low-income communities. Homeowners in relatively affluent communities in Texas and elsewhere often try to keep subsidized properties out of the area for fear that they will harm property values—even though researchers have found the fear to be unwarranted. The system in Texas for evaluating potential Low-Income Housing Tax Credit developments gives substantial weight to community support—meaning that vocal opponents of subsidized housing may be able to force development out. Developers then have little choice but to add more low-income housing in already low-income and low-opportunity communities. And that leads to stories of families like the Machados, profiled in the above Times story. One spouse commutes 35 minutes across the city for work; the other can only find minimum wage work so far away from home that her pay would be consumed by gas expenses.

How can we expect families like this to get ahead when they are stuck either living near jobs but not being able to afford their housing or living where communities will allow affordable developments but having no access to jobs once they are there? We can do better.

The federal government, through programs like Choice Neighborhoods, is increasingly emphasizing the linkage between housing, jobs, education, and other opportunities. This emphasis should ultimately help improve opportunities for low-income households without negatively impacting their neighbors. But Choice Neighborhoods alone will not create a sturdy bridge between low-income households and the opportunities they need to get ahead. States and municipalities can look at their own programs to ensure that scoring systems, like the one used in Texas, are not inadvertently leading to exclusion.

We can also take our efforts well beyond preventing exclusion and build new incentives, opportunities, and supports. Where people live matters in the opportunities they have. For those struggling to get ahead, shouldn’t we ensure that the road to economic security is not a full tank of gas away from home?

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